In the last few months, we have been seeing a real offensive on the part of international corporations, international finance and capital and a lot of propaganda in the press. They are making huge investments in the production of what they are calling “bio-fuels”. Why is this happening now and what are the consequences for peasant agriculture?
In March, 2007, during the World Forum on Food Sovereignty in Mali, in Africa, the representatives of hundreds of social movements from rural areas, environmentalists, scientists, fishermen, shepherds and members of the women’s movements agreed that we should not use the term “biodiesel” or “biofuels” because the prefix “bio” is being used in a manipulative way.
The fuels from plants cannot be called “bio”. Otherwise all living beings would have to also use the prefix “bio”. For this reason, we agreed that all the movements of International Via Campesina and environmentalists should begin using the term “agrofuels” as the most correct expression for fuels that are produced from agriculture.
Agrofuels can be divided into three basic groups. The first group comprises fuels originating from sucrose or sugar-based plants, of which various types of alcohol can be made and especially ethanol, which is the specific type for creating combustion in an engine. Ethanol can be produced from sugar cane, cassava, corn, sweet potato, etc. The degree of conversion of this type of agrofuel is 30/100. That is to say, to produce 100 liters of ethanol, we are going to spend 30 liters of another form of energy, either of petroleum or of ethanol itself.
The second group comprises the fuels that come from oily plants. Such is the case of oily plants such as soybeans, peanuts, sunflowers, or seeds of plants such as African palm. The degree of conversion of this type of fuel is from 3 to 15 per 100 liters.
And there is a third group which is methanol, a type of alcohol fuel that can be taken from wood, from wood byproducts and from cellulose. The degree of conversion of this type of fuel is at least 50 for 100.
The techniques to produce fuels from plants for use in engines has been known since the 19th century. Rudolph Diesel himself, the inventor of the combustion engine, experimented in 1893 with plant-based oils. Only afterwards was petroleum used to power his invention. And that’s where the diesel motor, powered by petroleum, got its name.
So why then the current interest in the production of agrofuels?
For two basic reasons. Oil reserves are nearing an end and the price of oil is steadily rising, surpassing $80 a barrel, making individual transportation less viable and reducing the profits of the oil and auto companies
The second reason is that all of humanity has heard scientists say that the planet is dangerously heating up and that an increase of 2 to 4 degrees warming is going to alter the whole climate system, affecting rain and farm production and people’s health and endangering various species, including human survival.
Faced with this situation and with the clear goal of maintaining their profits, a diabolic alliance has formed between three sectors of international capital: auto companies, oil companies, and the transnational agricultural corporations. And from this alliance arose the proposal to rapidly expand the production of agrofuels as a substitute for oil, without affecting the system of individual transportation or impacting their profits.
However, alcohol (ethanol) and the plant-based oils are nothing other than the result of solar energy condensed by photosynthesis that undergoes a chemical transformation which gives it sufficient energy to move engines. Therefore the basic inputs needed in order to produce agrofuels on a grand scale is the existence of three factors in abundance: land, water, and sun.
So these capitalists immediately turned to the southern hemisphere, especially to those countries near the tropics and those that have abundant land, to persuade them to produce ethanol and oils to export to the developed countries of the North. And they went to the countries of the South, with the proposal to produce these agrofuels rapidly, either of sugar cane, African palm oil, soybean oil, or sunflower oil, based on a capitalist style of production, that is to say, on enormous plantations that can use monocultures on a large scale, with mechanization and intensive use of agro-toxins. The consequences for the workers or the environment didn’t matter.
In these last few months, the Bush government and the Lula government went about the world, especially to the countries of the South, with propaganda about the need to produce agrofuels to export to the U.S. and Europe, as if this were the solution to the poverty of the peasants and of the countries of the South.
And meanwhile, various imperialist corporate groups tied to that alliance such as Cargill, Monsanto, Bungee, and other groups of speculative investors, among them George Soros, migrated to various countries of the South, buying up land and factories and beginning to build pipelines for alcohol to control this production market and export agrofuels to the North.
What are the immediate consequences this type of production will bring and is already bringing for agriculture in the South?
The first consequence is that with the possibility of earning a lot of money offered by the corporations from the North, the capitalist farmers have begun to buy land and expand the monoculture of sugarcane, soybeans, sunflowers, African palm, etc. This is bringing a huge concentration of property under the control of the large farms and businesses and in some cases, such as Brazil, includes the de-nationalization of the ownership of land, with the purchase of land by foreign corporations.
A second consequence is that in many countries this expansion of area cultivated by agrofuels has taken over areas dedicated to food and also to dairy cattle.
A third consequence is that on raising the rate of profit of the production of ethanol, the rate of profit rose for all farm products. With this, the prices of food products went up, products that everyone needs to buy. The price of land also went up, making investments less viable for small farmers and motivating them to sell their land for “good prices” to the neighboring farmers.
A fourth consequence is that in relation to the environment, the monoculture form of production based on agro-toxins is going to seriously affect the environment, destroy the existing biodiversity, affect rainfall, and also add to climate warming. All monocultures, by destroying existing biodiversity, contribute to the imbalance and to global warming.
And even in the case of the intensive use of non-degradable agro-toxins, these poisons are going to contaminate the groundwater table and ultimately become imbedded in the products to be produced. In the specific case of Brazil, the manufacturers of agro-toxins celebrate the expansion of agro-toxins and foresee a large increase in the consumption of poisons in the next three years, which by the year 2010 will make the country the major consumer of agro-toxins in the world.
So the production of agrofuels on large capitalist farms practicing monoculture will bring even greater environmental problems for the producing countries.
But are there alternatives to confront the problem of substituting petroleum and global warming?
There are definitely many different ways to deal with this problem.
First of all, since the simple functioning of engines already causes warming and alters the situation of cities regardless of what fuel is being used, we have to rethink the urban transit system and substitute mass transit for individual transportation.
There are also ways of lessening by more than 30% the consumption of energy, simply with educational measures.
And finally we have other sources for renewable energy from nature, with wind, wave, and solar energy. Or even in the improved use of gas coming from the fermentation of animal manure, which is otherwise totally wasted. Also in the production of butanol, which is another more efficient system produced with sugars. And a better use of plant-based oils. But these alternatives are not discussed because they would not guarantee profits for the big corporations.
Among our bases and with our movements, in relation to the production of agrofuels by small farmers and peasants, we should discuss a political orientation of production based on the principles of food sovereignty and of energy sovereignty. This means we should be saying that all agricultural production of a country, of a people, should in the first place ensure the production and the consumption of healthy food for all. And that the production of agrofuels should always be in second place, in a secondary form. It should be based on the energy needs of each community and people. And agrofuels should never be produced for export.
Respecting these principles we can think of new methods for the production of agrofuels that in fact do not worsen the environment, that do not substitute for food, but at the same time can represent an increase in income for the peasants and sovereignty in the energy that they use.
So we can stipulate that agrofuels can only be produced using polycultures, from various complementary sources (sugarcane, sunflower, and castor oil, etc.) respecting biodiversity and taking advantage of the least fertile lands. That only 20% of each production unit can be used for agrofuels. That agro-toxins should never be used. And that fuels should be produced in small and medium-sized cooperatively-owned manufacturing units. And they should be installed in rural communities, small settlements, and small cities in such a way that each town, settlement, and city cooperatively produces the energy they need.
And at the same time on the national level, the governments should have firm regulations to control and administer this production and distribution in accordance with the people’s interests, without harm to the environment, and never for the external market.
*Topics to be discussed in the movement and in the country:*
What form does the capital offensive to produce agrofuels take in your country? And what are the socio-economic-environmental consequences for the peasants and small farmers?
How can we construct a policy to produce agrofuels that serve the people’s interests, respecting the environment and maintaining the peasant style of producing and living?
What measures must we take on the national and international level to avoid the bad effects of the offensive of capital, and ensure the interests of our people?